Saturday 29 August 2009

The Children (1980)

Director: Max Kalmanowicz
Stars: Martin Shakar, Gil Rogers, Gale Garnett

There's been a pressure drop at the Yankee Power Co, a nuclear plant that has lots of really old pipes. The techs completely fail to notice the corroded pipe that caused it, even though it's right under the word 'Inlet', which apparently they checked. Then again, if techs at nuclear plants actually did their jobs, we couldn't have films like The Children, which is a freaky little picture that I really enjoyed. No, it isn't very good, but it is different and that's a big plus point in my book. In fact, it's hard to compare it to anything else. It's sort of a zombie movie but it doesn't really have zombies, it's sort of an evil children flick but it doesn't really have any evil children. It occupies its own space in the annals of low budget horror.

We join the children of Ravensback in their school bus heading home. Fred, the driver, is astoundingly good at his job because he manages to time his driving so well that the kids run out of bottles on the wall to sing about precisely as he stops to drop someone off. Maybe that's why the next song is about how awesome the bus driver is. But then, three miles from Ravensback, they drive straight through a radioactive yellow cloud and run off the road. Sheriff Hart finds the bus empty but running, by the old graveyard no less. Talk about an omen. Nobody answers his shouts, so he heads off to fetch the doc who's a cute but sassy young lady who apparently doesn't like him, so presumably he's not too unhappy when she becomes the first victim of the children.

You see, the sheriff decides that the best course of action is to set up a roadblock on the interstate and let his deputy know, then travel round to all the parents to warn them individually. That's so much more obvious a thing to do than to actually look around the bus to find the children hanging around in the graveyard where they've killed Fred and soon kill Doc Gould too. The way they do it is thoroughly unique: they dish out radioactive hugs of death that turn their victims into instant pizza. They do it with a smile, which was presumably intended to be the innocent smile of a child but which really suggests that the actors playing the children were having an awesome time frying all the adults and couldn't stop grinning.

If there's a social comment behind the horror, it isn't about nuclear power because that isn't mentioned once after the title credits roll, it would be about the parents deserving it because of their lifestyle choices. This could almost be seen as a religious film, where the innocents purify their town of all sort of moral degenerates, but it's not quite that consistent. Doc Gould may or may not be living in a lesbian relationship with a blind girl, depending on how you read that situation and she believes pills are the solution for everything.

Miss Shore bathes topless with her pet muscleman and smokes dope in front of the sheriff, while suggesting that having a kidnapping in Ravensback is exciting, even though her daughter is one of the victims. Deputy Timmons is messing around with someone's underage daughter. Cathy Freemont smokes while pregnant, though she does apologise to her unborn child as if that absolves her from any responsibility. Everyone suggests that Fred the driver is a little simple, but that never stopped them letting him drive their children around before and apparently him stopping off somewhere for an impromptu picnic instead of bringing them home is a believable reason for them all being late.

I learned a few things about Ravensback that must mean something. Firstly, almost everyone has a name that ends in the syllable 'y' or 'ie', even the ones that don't seem to make a lot of sense. The cops are Billy and Harry, the shopkeeper is Molly and then there's Cathy and Suzie and Jenny and Tommy and even Clarkie. Who names their kid Clarkie, even if he has a poster of Superman on his wall? Amusingly, Clarkie is played by Jessie. Secondly, Ravensback follows its own laws of nature that mean that time doesn't pass quite as expected. Suzie runs a little fruit stall outside her house, but she tells Deputy Harry that it's still a little early for customers even though the kids are already coming home from school. Sheriff Billy stops off with the Freemonts for a couple of minutes, but that's enough time for night to fall with a vengeance.

And the most important thing of all is that you should never trust those goth kids with black fingernails. Marilyn Manson was obviously behind this radioactive leak because all the children in this film have a mysterious supply of black nail polish that prompts them to kill. If I didn't know better, I'd have suggested that this film contains the ultimate cinematic irony, with its concept of setting up a bunch of kids as monster zombie killers who fry their parents with their radioactive hugs, would have achieved undying fame if only protestors had marched up and down outside the theatre proclaiming, 'Won't someone think of the children?' I'd have painted my fingernails black and marched up and down next to them with a placard reading 'Free hugs.'

There's a whole new logic built in here for these monsters, which is fair enough, and helps to build their uniqueness. After all we have rulebooks built in for everyone else. Vampires get to drink blood, cringe from crosses and die in sunlight; zombies get to eat brains and get up from anything except a head shot; even Freddy and Jason and the rest of the icons have their rules to follow. Here, the children are only dangerous when they have black fingernails, because otherwise they're just recharging; they walk like zombies but aim at their parents first before any other victims; and they can be killed by chopping their hands off. They don't bleed but they die, just like that.

The cast are interesting, not least because Shannon Bolin has a ball as Molly the store owner. Martin Shakar is top credited as John Freemont, probably more because his last film was Saturday Night Fever than the fact that he looks like Griffin Dunne. Most of them appear to be enthusiastic amateurs who still seem to have made a bunch of films, and the children, who have the best time of all, never did anything else. It would be fascinating to get this cast, especially the now grown-up children, together for a Q&A session to find out what they really felt making this movie. It looks like it was a party and beyond many dumb decisions by the sheriff, holds together pretty well. In a world apparently full of different takes on zombie movies, this one has them all beat on that front.

No comments: